Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thinking about "Jewish Peoplehood"


Holding Jews together


This week's mega-Jewish conference in Washington - the GA - brings together lay leaders and professionals from most of America's alphabet soup of Jewish organizations. They're rubbing shoulders with politicos, networking and strategizing. And they're having several opportunities to participate in forums devoted to Jewish peoplehood.

In a sense, peoplehood leapfrogs the tiresome "Who is a Jew" issue and poses a different set of questions, starting with: What, if anything, holds 21st century Jews together? Is being Jewish a matter of synagogue attendance or theological faith? Is it nationalism, ethnicity, culture?

For the rigorously Orthodox, such questions have little resonance - a Jew is someone who, foremost, meets halachic criteria for being Jewish, and if a convert, leads a strictly Orthodox lifestyle. But for the bulk of the world's 13 million Jews, the subject of what being Jewish means ought to be highly relevant.

It is no less germane in Israel, where the largest Jewish community of 5.5 million is concentrated. A young person can graduate the public school system here, yet be scandalously unfamiliar with the Jewish canon, the basics of Jewish ritual, even how to navigate the standard prayer book. Haredi schools are rich in Jewish literacy, but favor parochialism over peoplehood. Perhaps 20 percent of our students attend Zionist-oriented religious schools that emphasize Judaism along with secular studies and presumably promote peoplehood in some fashion.

IN THEIR paper "A Framework for Strategic Thinking about Jewish Peoplehood," Ezra Kopelowitz and Ari Engelberg write that while the "Jewish people" is an ancient idea, the concept of Jewish "peoplehood" is new.

For some, peoplehood connotes the Jews' shared mission, while for others it can be as vacuous as saving the South American didelphid opossum.

Put another way: The goal of peoplehood should be to foster mutual responsibility, collaboration and continuity. It is inherently not about universalism, though it can spotlight uniquely Jewish approaches to solving problems facing humanity.

Diaspora young people in Western countries today choose whether to be Jewish, whereas their great-grandparents simply were. Likewise, young Israelis have to opt to make being Jewish a meaningful part of their lives rather than an accident of birth and geography.

Embracing Jewish civilization may be one attractive way to keep today's youth, here and abroad, connected to their people. However, such efforts are necessarily hindered because Israel's essentially ultra-Orthodox "church" monopolizes official Judaism in this country while complicating interdenominational relations with Jews abroad.

But is this discussion already coming too late? Historian David Vital, in The Future of the Jews, sees Jewish unity as an obsolete myth, arguing that nothing much holds Jews together anymore. We hope he's wrong.

In his new book, Future Tense, Lord Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi, argues that Judaism is not ethnicity or culture but faith, "and the people who are in a state of denial about this are Jews." Yet Sacks goes on to write that "in calling Judaism a faith, I do not mean to exclude secular Judaism's or interpretations of faith other than my own. In the widest sense, Judaism is the ongoing conversation of the Jewish people with itself, with heaven and with the world."

We'd also like to think the Jewish peoplehood concept could serve as a way of bridging gaps, a sort of work-around to obviate Vital's gloomy assessment of where we are. Peoplehood figures prominently in Sacks's vision of the future; it is a focus of Leonid Nevzlin's philanthropy, of the research conducted by The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, and, of course, it is high on the agenda at the GA.

PLAINLY, IDENTIFYING what it takes to create a sense of peoplehood is vitally important to the Zionist enterprise. In this regard, we're grateful that birthright has been bringing tens of thousands of Diaspora students to Israel, though most American Jews have never visited.

A connection to Israel also has the potential to stem the rate of "outmarriage" - as would more creative thinking on how to transform demographic hemorrhaging into an opportunity to expand the pool of new Jews.

From a Zionist perspective, peoplehood demands substance and sacrifice. It needs to combine a common historical memory, a sense of shared fate and a feeling of collective destiny.

No less important, peoplehood means appreciating the dialectic between Diaspora and homeland.

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